The revelation that Johnson & Johnson knew for decades that its baby powder contained asbestos has opened the door for local law firms to take on the multinational pharmaceutical giant for any Australian victims who may have been exposed to the toxic mineral.
News agency Reuters revealed on Saturday that internal reports and other confidential documents showed J&J knew about the presence of small amounts of asbestos in its products from at least 1971.
The evidence surfaced after people who suspected that its talc had caused their cancers hired lawyers experienced in the decades-long deluge of litigation involving workers exposed to asbestos.
By David Estcourt
15 December 2018 — 7:45pm
When asked about the potential risks faced by Australian consumers and whether the ingredients used in the Australian product was the same as its US-equivalent, a Johnson & Johnson Australia spokeswoman would not respond.
Instead, she referred the Herald to a generic statement – which derides the Reuters report – provided by its parent company and referred questions to its US head office.
Theodora Ahilas, the national head of Maurice Blackburn’s asbestos practice, said the development opened the door for the firm to further investigate the possible source of asbestos exposure in Australia.
“These reports regarding asbestos in baby powder are deeply concerning,” Ms Ahilas said.
“There is no safe amount of exposure to asbestos, and when we’re talking about a product that’s used on babies, we need to be extra vigilant.”
Some other Australia law firms are also considering whether to pursue the matter.
More than 11,000 plaintiffs have been identified by US lawyers to be potentially impacted by the presence of asbestos in their baby powder – including thousands of women with ovarian cancer.
Documents that surfaced during the lawsuit also said the company had commissioned and paid for studies of its baby powder productsand hired a ghostwriter to redraft the article that presented the findings in a journal.
News of the cover-up slammed US shares of Johnson & Johnson, causing a fall of 10 per cent on Friday, putting it on track to post their biggest percentage drop in more than 16 years.
The decline in shares erased about $55.7 billion ($US40 billion) from the company’s market capitalisation, with investors worrying about the impact of the report as it faces thousands of talc-related lawsuits.
In response to the report, the company said “any suggestion that Johnson & Johnson knew or hid information about the safety of talc is false”.
“This is all a calculated attempt to distract from the fact that thousands of independent tests prove our talc does not contain asbestos or cause cancer,” Ernie Knewitz, Johnson & Johnson’s vice president of global media relations, wrote in an emailed response.
“The Reuters article is one-sided, false and inflammatory. Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder is safe and asbestos-free.”